Top spot dogfight continues as Vardar visit SzegedArticle
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GROUP B PREVIEW: Five teams are battling for pole position in Group B, with an automatic quarter-final berth the prize for the team that comes out on top

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Top spot dogfight continues as Vardar visit Szeged

Macedonian giants HC Vardar face Hungary’s MOL-Pick Szeged in Group B’s, as they aim to stay at the pinnacle ahead of a four-team chasing pack.

Defending champions KS Vive Tauron Kielce are away to Slovenia’s Celje Pivovarna Lasko, who are embroiled in a three-way fight to secure a knockout stage berth, while HC Meshkov Brest can gain ground on the leaders when they host HC PPD Zagreb.

In Round 11's Match of the Week Rhein-Neckar Löwen are strong favourites to claim two points at sixth-placed IFK Kristianstad.

  • Vardar and Szeged to slug it out for group’s top spot
  • Meshkov can move up if they beat old rivals Zagreb
  • Rhein-Neckar Löwen are strong favourites at Kristianstad
  • Kielce looking for a reprieve at struggling Celje 

MOL-Pick Szeged (HUN) vs HC Vardar (MKD), Saturday, 17:30 hrs local time; live on ehfTV

Vardar head into the fixture on the back of a convincing 25:20 home win over regional rivals Zagreb in the previous round, with all their top guns in fine form against the Croatian side.

Alex Dujshebaev led the scoring with seven goals and the support cast also provided plenty of firepower. Backs Luka Cindric and Igor Karacic added four each, while winger Ivan Cupic netted three, as the trio found another gear ahead of the clash with their Croatian compatriots.

Vardar’s Serbian line player Mijajlo Marsenic outlined what is at stake in Hungary.

“A win would put us in a great position ahead of the final three group matches and give us a massive confidence boost,” he told the club’s official website.

“Every point matters now and we can drop to fourth if we falter. In order to come away with a win, we will have to be aggressive in defence and make our fast breaks count.”

Containing Vardar’s quick transition will be Szeged’s first priority after they suffered a 30:27 defeat in the reverse fixture in Skopje, hence the Hungarian outfit will need to improve on the previous round’s 25:23 setback at Brest.

Szeged’s attack came to a screeching halt in the second half of that fixture, as they scored only nine goals with their Russian pack leader Sergei Gorbok subdued.

Vardar’s former player Gorbok was reduced to a mere two goals in Belarus and Szeged will hope that he can rediscover his scoring form when he faces his former club.

HC Meshkov Brest (BLR) vs HC PPD Zagreb (CRO); Saturday, 19:30 hrs local time, live on ehfTV

A golden opportunity for Meshkov to close in on some of the leaders and there is little doubt they will head into the match as hot favourites to complete the double over the Croatian champions, whom they brushed aside 27:22 when the two teams met in Zagreb.

Meshkov will be buoyed by an impressive 25:23 home win over Szeged in the previous round, with their passionate fans roaring them to victory as Iranian left back Iman Jamali rifled in eight goals.

Meshkov’s rugged defence will be a real test for Zagreb’s youthful team who are in the middle of a transition and battling to avoid an early exit from Europe’s premier club competition.

The Croatian side warmed up for the trip to Belarus with a morale-boosting 32:29 win at Celje Pivovarna Lasko in the SEHA League, which secured them a berth in the competition’s Final Four.

Meshkov, in turn, also enjoyed a fine dress rehearsal with a comfortable 37:29 home win over Croatians Nexe, keeping them in the running for a SEHA League Final Four berth.

IFK Kristianstad (SWE) vs Rhein-Neckar Löwen (GER); Sunday, 17:30 hrs local time, live on ehfTV

The pressure on sixth-placed IFK is mounting and the upcoming home game against the German champions will be a massive test of their credentials to secure a first berth in the VELUX EHF Champions League knockout stages.

Their confidence has been boosted by last weekend’s dramatic 28:27 win at Celje, which enabled them to leapfrog both the Slovenian side and bottom-placed Zagreb into a slot guaranteeing involvement in the business end of Europe’s top competition.

Jerry Tollbring and Dane Tim Sorensen propelled IFK to victory at Celje with seven goals each and the home fans in Sweden will expect the dynamic duo to fire on all cylinders again.

Rhein-Neckar Löwen, on the other hand, are battling for the group’s top spot and hence they will also see a win in this game as absolutely essential if they are to secure an automatic last-eight berth.

Their confidence will be sky-high after a 28:25 home win over reigning champions KS Vive Tauron Kielce in the last round, with the German side’s veteran Icelandic winger Gudjon Valur Sigurdsson netting seven goals in a fervent atmosphere.

The Lions from Mannheim also stayed in touch with leaders Flensburg at the top of the German Bundesliga, as a 30:26 win at TSV Hannover-Burgdorf kept them in second position, three points behind the leaders but with a game in hand.

Rhein-Neckar Löwen will miss their injured Swedish back Kim Ekdahl Du Rietz, who has nonetheless provided a barrage of tickets for friends and relatives who will attend the match.

Kristianstad, in turn, warmed up for the clash with a 23:20 home win over Malmo which kept them second in the Swedish league, one point adrift of front-runners Allingsas.

RK Celje Pivovarna Lasko (SLO) vs KS Vive Tauron Kielce (POL); Sunday, 19:00 hrs local time, live on ehfTV

Having suffered a 28:25 setback at Rhein-Neckar Löwen in the previous round, defending champions Kielce have left themselves no room for error in the quest to finish top of the group.

No less than 11 Kielce players scored against Löwen but only four of them netted more than two goals, as the German side’s tough defence subdued the Polish team’s normally free-flowing attack.

Spanish line player Julen Aguinagalde stood out with five goals, Croatian winger Manuel Strlek added four while Karol Bielecki and German Tobias Reichmann scored three each.

Kielce stayed firmly in the driving seat of their group in Poland’s Superleague with a 29:23 home win over Szczecin on Wednesday, keeping them 12 points ahead of closest rivals Kwidzyn.

The result erased some of the bitter memories from the defeat at Löwen but the Polish side know they face a somewhat tougher task at Celje, who also need to make amends after a 28:27 home setback against Kristianstad last weekend.

That outcome pushed Celje back into seventh place in their VELUX EHF Champions League section and handed Kristianstad the initiative in the battle for sixth place.

The Slovenians now face an uphill task if they are to avoid an early exit and their cause is not helped by a tough fixture list in the home straight.

Beating Kielce of course is easier said than done, even with home court support from handball-mad Slovenian fans, but Celje will at least head into the clash knowing they have nothing to lose against the defending champions.

TEXT: Zoran Milosavljevic / ts